Miriam, a world premiere from Zimbabwean choreographer Nora Chipaumire, is dark. Not gloomy or sinister—no, this is a performance genuinely devoid of light. As a result, it can be difficult to make out what exactly is happening onstage, what Chipaumire and fellow dancer Okwui Okpokwasili are wearing, what sorts of props they’re handling. Occasional flashes of light break the darkness—one of the most spectacular moments comes as naked light bulbs swing on wires, selectively and unpredictably illuminating Chipaumire and Okpokwasili—but Miriam is by and large a dimly lit performance.
Initially, this darkness frustrated me. But then I heard Chipaumire mention (in a talk with PICA artistic director Angela Mattox) that she read Heart of Darkness as research for Miriam. Describing Joseph Campbell’s novel as “glorious and annoying,” Chipaumire explained how Miriam seeks both to capture the darkness associated with Africa and to undress baroque Western fears of the continent.
Miriam does that and more. As with so much at TBA, it’s a challenging work, not immediately digestible. Miriam pays tribute to iconic South African singer Miriam Makeba and explores the Christian iconography of Mary, but rarely in any blatant manner. She begins the performance writhing under a pile of rocks—a clear representation of the burden of womanhood, and of African womanhood in particular. This is a theme Chipaumire revisits throughout the work, as she lugs around bulky sacks and plods heavily about the stage. Chipaumire’s emergence from beneath the rocks has a primordial aspect, too: Miriam was, to me, something of a creation myth. Chipaumire moves from a hunched-over, barefoot performer to one kicking and contorting regally, dressed in platform shoes and a voluminous gown made of plastic. All through, she dances with ferocity and power. Even when moving slowly, lifting on and off her toes or extending a leg through the air, she commands attention. Okpokwasili, a Bronx-born Nigerian actor and dancer, is alternately sinuous and sharp. She complements Chipaumire well.
During her talk with Mattox, Chipaumire discussed how Miriam can be set in-the-round, or (as it is at Lincoln Hall) for a proscenium stage. There’s something lost in this proscenium staging: Not only does it detach the performers from the audience, but it distances the set. That’s a shame—the props, many repurposed from rubbish (in true African fashion, Chipaumire said), are varied and intriguing.
Even more varied is the soundscore, composed by Afro-Cuban pianist and experimental musician Omar Sosa. Sosa’s fascinating, diverse arrangement incorporates the slaps and claps of human percussion, the vigorous rhythm of drums and cowbells, pretty piano tunes and coarse vocals. Performed in surround sound, it envelops the theater.
Miriam also integrates text, which often overlaps to become incomprehensible. Like the dim lighting, these snippets of text can frustrate. In the same conversation with Mattox, Chipaumire noted that though she normally begins with physical movement and then adds text, for Miriam she worked in the opposite direction. “I’m convinced after this process that the body is supreme,” Chipaumire said. “Movement rules.” In the case of Miriam, that’s a true statement—none of the text in the performance can begin to match Chipaumire’s physical dynamism.